Ethical Poetry Of Greece
( Originally Published 1913 )
"Quietly, over the tomb of Sophocles,
(Simias of Tieges.) Translated by LILLA CABOT PERRY.
MR. GLADSTONE somewhere speaks of "the great business of understanding a poet; " and there is perhaps no way so direct to the under-standing of a people as to study their poets. The goddess Athena is said to have pacified the Furies by promising them a local sanctuary on the Acropolis and the reverential consideration of all the citizens. It was thus that the Furies became the Eumenides, the "Propitious Ones," and their sanctuary in the cleft of the Areophagus, not far from the theater of Dionysus, became the haunt of choral harmonies and celestial grace; a devastating force was changed into creative energies powerful for good, —such was the wisdom of the divine Athena.
The Christian poets of Greece, held in reverence by all her citizens, exerted over men this same beneficent power, because the reverential regard they incited forged that direct relation with the life of the citizens which enabled the poets to foster high endeavor and to fructify and bless all noble deeds. The poet's word is, in-deed, by some magic of spiritual alchemy, one of the most potent and penetrating of the con-trolling influences of life. It is the power that essentially reinforces the spirit with the stimulus of hope and faith, and arouses that creative energy which shapes the fulfilment of all noble purposes. For at poetry's "divine first finger-touch," life renews itself. It is poetry, too, which above any other art, touches life with joy, and joy is the distilled elixir of working power. It is the force which is able to conquer and prevail. It is the one invincible energy. Into this radiant atmosphere do the poets lead us; the atmosphere of confidence in one's own ability to achieve, held in perfect receptivity to the divine guidance and aid. For when the human will is united and made one with the divine will, all the powers of earth and air shall not prevail against it. This faith is essentially Greek in spirit. It breathes from their entire literature of poetry like fragrances from a rose garden. What renewal of the spirit may not be gained from this stanza translated from a Greek poet:
"A shipwrecked sailor, buried on this coast,
It is the artist who, of all other helpers and guides, keeps up "open roads between the Seen and Unseen."
Poetry is as a vital germ implanted in the soul, whose development not only focuses new energies, but transforms the entire nature. A completer poetry may always adjust life to a new center.
And plant a poet's word even, deep enough
It is by a visit to the holy hill; a scent of thyme that clings about one, reminiscent of the excursion, that life calls again in "some trans-formed new voice." Poetry is the direct message to the spirit. As such the Greeks held it in reverence.
For the art of the poet must not be mistaken for the merely aesthetic. Mrs. Browning, whose reverence for her vocation was so supreme that she exclaimed :
"I, who love my art,
has pointed out that not until the period when Homer, "the sublime poet of antiquity," struck the first poetic notes in praise of honor and patriotism and awakened the people to the "sense of the high attributes of the Deity — not until then did the seed of every great quality, long dormant in the souls of the Greeks, burst into bloom, and Greece began to give those immortal examples of exalted feeling . . . which have since astonished the world." Mrs. Browning notes that "man seems then to have first proved his resemblance to his Creator, and the birth of Poetry was the birth of all kindred arts."
Greek poetry was no spontaneous outburst of song. Edwin Percy Whipple, in one of his penetrating criticisms on literary art, pointed out that "easy writing by no means insures itself to be easy reading; " that the art which lives is apt to require an infusion of industry as well as of inspiration. This truth is revealed in the work of the Greek poets. Their art was not that of an instantaneous projection. The most important and perhaps the most remarkable feature which is recognizable in every Greek poet is the indefatigable study and untiring work given to each production, as surveyed from Homer to Theocritus. Professor Mahaffy declares that nothing would seem to a Greek poet less worthy than spontaneous production. He asserts that the Greek poet despised what we call an untutored genius.
In a course of lectures on Greek life and literature given before the Lowell Institute in Boston in the autumn of 1908,1 by the Reverend Professor Mahaffy, Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, and one of the most eminent authorities on Grecian history, literature, and sociology, the learned speaker gave a very interesting analysis of the early literary methods and ideals of the Greeks. In one of these scholarly and deeply interesting addresses Dr. Mahaffy said:
"We hear talk, indeed, of `divine madness,' and the inspiration of the muses; but so far as we know they never inspired an ignorant man, and never taught an educated man to violate the traditions of his school. This studied work comes before us in its full artificiality in the Homeric poems. It is more than doubtful whether such a language was ever spoken. It is full of strange forms, and the mixed dialect was that invented or perfected by a school of bards, who did not profess to reproduce ordinary speech, but something far higher and better, which only the educated poet could compose. And when I use the term `artificial,' he notes,
"I must say a word in explanation of my meaning. It is not the proper province of art to attain to a perfect representation of nature, but to a representation of perfect nature. For example, the more the art of sculpture was developed in Greece, the more they attained to the representation of a perfectly natural, but an ideally beautiful figure, such as the Hermes of Praxiteles. The last triumph of a great actor is to produce perfectly human nature in its general features, if not in its ideal features; and so the philosopher exclaims in wonder at the plays of Menander, ` O Menander and human life ! which of you has copied the other?' . Greek poetry was always developing in schools possessing fixed traditions. . If any man thought to break loose from these, and write in a manner wholly free and unchecked, he would get no hearing in Greece."
According to this theory, it was fortunate for Walt Whitman, the most indifferent of poets to outer form and rhythmic values, that his life did not fall within this period. Dr. Mahaffy is too profound a critic to deny that there may be successive methods; and he outlined, indeed, many other modes of expression among the Greeks themselves, whose underlying currents of thought were too vital not to break forth under many varieties of literary form.
As time went by, epic poetry exhausted itself, and Homer and Hesiod were succeeded by the lyrists. There came Tyrtaeus, Xenophanes, Archilochus, Terpander, Mimnermus, Alcman, Alcaeus, Sappho, Theognis, Anacreon, Ibycus, Simonides, Pindar, and Callistrates, not to mention others who are not without claim. The dramatic school arose, forever immortalized by AEschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Philemon, Menander; and the Alexandrine school, in which Theocritus, whose songs share the fame of Pindar's in their sweetness; Rion, Moschus, Apollonius, Lycophron, and others recur to the mind.
To refer with any degree of adequacy to the great tragic poets of Greece would require a volume of itself; and it is within the scope of the present book to touch only upon the ancient literature in its relation to the contemporary life. The immortal tragedies of Greek literature must be studied in their entirety, and if commentary and commentator are required, they are not wanting among the great classicists of modern literary art.
Greek translators have pronounced Theocritus to be peculiarly difficult to fairly represent, as out of his Idyls only some thirty fragments survive. He is believed to be a native of Sicily, born in Syracuse about 270 B.C. and to have passed much of his early manhood in Alexandria, then the center of culture and learning. It is easy to see, in the Arcadian sweetness of his song, reminiscence of the romantic loveliness of this enchanting island; and it is not less obvious that the refinement and charm of Alexandrian brilliancy contributed to his gift their strong impulse. He seemed one entitled to recognition as an artist in his production as well as a poet of lofty endowments. In Mrs. Browning's translation of The Cyclops both the scholarly culture and the human tenderness of Theocritus are strikingly revealed :
"And so an easier life our Cyclops drew,
"Come to me, Sweet! thou shalt have all of those
The wooded AEtna pours down through the trees
" And, when I burn for thee, I grudge the pyre
And is there, in all the literature of reference to other languages, a lyric more exquisite than this transcription, for a volume of Theocritus, by Austin Dobson?
"O Singer of the field and fold,
"For thee the scent of new-made mould
"Thou sang'st the simple feasts of old,
"And round thee, ever-laughing, rolled
"Today our songs are faint and cold;
Of the sustained sweetness and contemplative power of Bion, his Lament for Adonis is perhaps the best example; and in the translation made by Mrs. Browning these qualities are singularly preserved:
"I mourn for Adonis — Adonis is dead,
Love him still, poor Adonis; cast on him together
From Aristotle John Addington Symonds makes the following translation:
"Earth in her breast hides Plato's dust; his soul
Among other translations made by Mr. Symonds is this fragment, also from Aristotle :
"Virtue, to men thou bringest care and toil;
Theognis was a poet who gave high counsel, if he may be estimated from the standard of the following lines, translated by John Hookham
"Entire and perfect happiness is never
Sir Edwin Arnold translates from Sappho these lines addressed To One Who Loves not Poetry:
"Thou liest dead and there will be no memory left behind
Shelley's exquisite quatrain, from Plato, will be recalled by all who love poetic art:
"Thou wert the morning star among the living,
From Archilochus is the following translation, made by William Hay :
"Tossed on a sea of troubles, Soul my Soul,
"Thine be no boasting when the victor's crown
Greek poetry, from the Homeric to the Alexandrine, ranging over the four general divisions of the Epic, Lyric, Dramatic, and Alexandrine, is a reservoir of thought. For the national expression was ethical as well as artistic, and counsel and epigram are presented in poetic form. The poet was not alone the interpreter; he was the guide, the monitor, the inspirer of life. In the translations of Plato made by Professor Jowett occurs this passage, typical of Plato's wise counsel :
"When the boy has learned his letters and is beginning to understand what is written, as before he understood only what was spoken, they put into his hands the works of great poets, which he reads at school; in these are contained many admonitions, and many tales, and praises, and encomia of ancient famous men, which he is required to learn by heart, in order that he may imitate or emulate them and desire to be-come like them."
The poets even of those days were not without their convictions of relative excellence. Plato deplored the influence of Musaeus (the poet who was said to have been the founder of the Eleusinian Mysteries), because he felt that both Musaeus and Orpheus embodied mere superstition in their books. Aristophanes, however, honored Musaeus, as did Virgil in a later time; while Pindar enthusiastically declared that Orpheus was the father of song, sent by Apollo. The songs of Orpheus were invested with mystery as well as with significance, and the Orphica became as a sacred book to Greece. Yet we find Aristotle, according to Cicero, denying even the existence of Orpheus.
The study of Greek poetry comprehends the very spirit of poetry, as revealed in the epic, the lyric, in tragedy, in comedy; Homer, blind, yet illuminated the way; Pindar glorified the beauty of nature and life and gave choice inspiration to all the poets to come, by the sweetness of his voice; Sappho, clad in her singing-robes, with "leavings of the lilies in her hair;" AEschylus, thrilling all the ages with his heroic ideals; Aristophanes, whose fantastic merriment still echoes in the air; Euripides, "the human," with his sensitive response to every emotion of life; and Gregory Nazianzen, who questioned the problems of the soul, - these and many others are still incorporated into the literature that is immortal. "Wonderful it is," says Mrs. Browning, "to look back thousands of years away, where whole centuries lie in dust, the sounding of their trumpets and the rushing of their scythed chariots are stilled . blind Homer spoke this Greek after blind Demodocus, with a quenchless light about his brows, which he felt through his blindness. Pindar rolled his chariots in it, prolonging the clamor of the games. Sappho's heart beat through it, and heaved up the world's. AEschylus strained it to the stature of his high thoughts. Plato crowned it with his divine peradventures. Aristophanes made it drunk with the wine of his fantastic merriment. The latter Platonists wove their souls away in it, out of sight of other souls. The first Christians heard in it God's new revelation...."
For a certain rhythmic music of these poems of the mighty past, Mrs. Browning felt that we ask in vain. "The subtlety of this ancient music, the variety of its cadences, the inter-section of sweetness in the rise and fall of melodies," she says, "are as utterly lost to this later period as the digamma was to an earlier one."
The religious poets, of whom Christus Pa-tiens and Gregory Nazianzen are the more notable examples, have left some lyrics that haunt the memory. "You may cast me down from my bishop's throne," exclaimed this Gregory, "but you cannot banish me from before God's." He is pictured as carrying both hands full of trailing branches from the banks of the Cephissus, from the very plane-tree under which Socrates sat with Phaedrus and talked of beauty to the cadence of the rising and falling of the leaves. Poet he was, if the production of thirty thousand verses could entitle him to that rank; not all this mass by any means worthy to endure, but a proportion characterized by exaltation, devotion, sweetness, and pathos. His finest expression is a lyric called Soul and Body.
These Christian poets of Greece made on Mrs. Browning a profound impression. "We want the touch of Christ's hand upon our literature, as it touched other dead things," she writes and from them she made a number of translations. There was Synesius of Cyrene, a disciple of Plato, a man "who loved Hypatia and Plato as well as he loved truth, but who loved beyond all other things to have his own way ! " The worthy Synesius is said to have refused a bishopric, perhaps because that office would have limited his enjoyment of his favorite luxury, and on the whole, he regarded life as better worth the living if embellished in his own way rather than by a bishop's throne. At all events, Mrs. Browning, who evidently knew him much better than most of us do, declares his poems to be "holier and more abiding" than those of even Anacreon. Comparatively little of the poetry of Synesius has come down to us; but the great woman-poet of England found the fragments that have drifted down to the nineteenth century, when she wrote of them, to hold "the attar of a thousand rose-trees." Something, also, of the phraseology of Plato and Plotinus she detected in his poems, with the added grace of "wonderful rapture and ecstasy." As the Greeks have always maintained that "it takes a god to recognize a god," so it may take a poet to recognize a poet.
Mrs. Browning included the Ninth Ode of Synesius among her numerous translations from the Greeks, and she gives some transcriptions from Amphilochus (the bishop of Iconium), and from Eudocia, the wife of Theodosius, of the fifth century, who "wrote only such Christian poems as Christians and poets might rejoice to read, but which perished with her beauty, as being of one seed with it."
In the same seventh century (B.C.) was George Pisida, of the Metropolitan church of St. Sofia, who was half the poet of the church and half poet of the court; and whose devotion was almost equally divided between the Archbishop and the Emperor Heraclius. Pisida knew the secret of beauty.
At Damascus, in the eighth century, was John Damascenus, "who wrote acrostics on the chief festivals of the church which are not much better, although much longer, than acrostics should be." But there is from him one Anacreontic hymn, in a translation by Mrs. Browning, which is not only profoundly touching in its pathos, but the more interesting in that it bears a curious kinship to the Andrew Rykman's Prayer of Whittier. While the poem of Whittier is in no sense an imitation, the two are yet, both by the peculiar rhythm and somewhat in significance, closely allied. The Hymn of Damascenus opens thus:
"From my lips in their defilement,
Michael Psellus; John of Euchiata, a bishop as well as a poet; Philip Solitarius, of the end of the eleventh century; and Theodore Proddromus, of the twelfth; John Tzetza and Manuel Phil, of the fourteenth century after the Christian era, complete this school of Greek poets, save one, Maximus Margunius, closely akin to Nazianzen. A hymn written by Margunius, and translated by Mrs. Browning, closes thus:
"Take me as a hermit lone
With Margunius there passes the last figure of this notable group.
With the Greeks, poetry- was essentially the expression of the phenomena of life, rather than a criticism upon those phenomena. Of them all, Empedocles is perhaps most calculated to impress the imagination. He brought to poetry that secret of magic that invests his verse with nameless and compelling fascination. His comprehensive grasp of the archetypal powers that contribute to the mystery of being; his freedom and sweep in poetic utterances; his wonderful versatility, darting straight as light to the significance of the hour, — all combined to incite the enthusiasm of the populace to whom he was philosopher as well as poet.
Sophocles, of all the great tragic poets of Greece, has become the most familiar to the popular recognition because of the not unfrequent dramatic portrayals of his noblest work, the OEdipus Tyrannus, and the still greater familiarization of the general public with this work by the recitals given. Greek culture, and even more especially the culture of Greek poetry, has exerted an influence as powerful as it is immeasurable on modern life. The forces of the past can never be definitely separated from those of the present. The stream of human life flows on endlessly, and the stars that looked on Marathon look down upon Gettysburg !
Hesiod, in his Bacchus and Ariadne, proclaims the immunity of time to any inroads of those two subtle and mighty factors, death and age.
"The golden-hairèd Bacchus did espouse
The traditional counsel to "Count no man happy till he dies," is condensed from a passage in the OEdipus Tyrannus, whose translation runs:
".. From hence the lesson learn ye
The Greek poets sang for gods and men and for all time. Greek poetry and philosophy are the treasure stores of all the ages. They are the radium of literature. Till the sun grows old and the stars are cold, will this living flame endure, lighting the course of the adventure of the soul on earth. Greek thought is a vital, potent force that is translated, transmuted, diverted in a thousand channels of new expression, but with its archetypal significance unchanged. "The body is the implement of the soul, and the soul of God," said Plutarch; and in our own Emerson we find this essential truth proclaimed in his own beauty of expression; we find the great astronomer, Benjamin Peirce, saying to a Lowell Institute audience: "Man is a machine for the conversion of physical into spiritual power." Poet and philosopher have proclaimed this thought in many ages and many tongues; and this is but one slight illustration of the way in which almost all that is greatest and most enduring in philosophy and ethics is found in the literature of these wonderful people whose life invested Greece with her fadeless glory.
In turning from this aspect of Greek life, one can but recall with a smile the story of Lucian's terview with Homer, when they met in the Elysium Fields.
"I went up to Homer, the poet," he writes, "when we were both at leisure, and after making other inquiries I asked him further about the rejected verses; whether they were written by him? And he declared that he wrote them all."
So it would seem that even in Paradise the enigmas of poetic production and problematic authorship are discussed among the Immortals.